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My Faith: What people talk about before they die
January 28th, 2012
11:00 PM ET

My Faith: What people talk about before they die

Editor's Note: Kerry Egan is a hospice chaplain in Massachusetts and the author of "Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago."

By Kerry Egan, Special to CNN

As a divinity school student, I had just started working as a student chaplain at a cancer hospital when my professor asked me about my work.  I was 26 years old and still learning what a chaplain did.

"I talk to the patients," I told him.

"You talk to patients?  And tell me, what do people who are sick and dying talk to the student chaplain about?" he asked.

I had never considered the question before.  “Well,” I responded slowly, “Mostly we talk about their families.”

“Do you talk about God?

“Umm, not usually.”

“Or their religion?”

“Not so much.”

“The meaning of their lives?”

“Sometimes.”

“And prayer?  Do you lead them in prayer?  Or ritual?”

“Well,” I hesitated.  “Sometimes.  But not usually, not really.”

I felt derision creeping into the professor's voice.  “So you just visit people and talk about their families?”

“Well, they talk.  I mostly listen.”

“Huh.”  He leaned back in his chair.

A week later, in the middle of a lecture in this professor's packed class, he started to tell a story about a student he once met who was a chaplain intern at a hospital.

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“And I asked her, 'What exactly do you do as a chaplain?'  And she replied, 'Well, I talk to people about their families.'” He paused for effect. “And that was this student's understanding of  faith!  That was as deep as this person's spiritual life went!  Talking about other people's families!”

The students laughed at the shallowness of the silly student.  The professor was on a roll.

“And I thought to myself,” he continued, “that if I was ever sick in the hospital, if I was ever dying, that the last person I would ever want to see is some Harvard Divinity School student chaplain wanting to talk to me about my family.”

My body went numb with shame.  At the time I thought that maybe, if I was a better chaplain, I would know how to talk to people about big spiritual questions.  Maybe if dying people met with a good, experienced chaplain they would talk about God, I thought.

Today, 13 years later, I am a hospice chaplain.  I visit people who are dying in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing homes.   And if you were to ask me the same question - What do people who are sick and dying talk about with the chaplain?  – I, without hesitation or uncertainty, would give you the same answer. Mostly, they talk about their families: about their mothers and fathers, their sons and daughters.

They talk about the love they felt, and the love they gave.  Often they talk about love they did not receive, or the love they did not know how to offer, the love they withheld, or maybe never felt for the ones they should have loved unconditionally.

They talk about how they learned what love is, and what it is not.    And sometimes, when they are actively dying, fluid gurgling in their throats, they reach their hands out to things I cannot see and they call out to their parents:  Mama, Daddy, Mother.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God.  That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives.  That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don't live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories.  We live our lives in our families:  the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

This is where we create our lives, this is where we find meaning, this is where our purpose becomes clear.

Family is where we first experience love and where we first give it.  It's probably the first place we've been hurt by someone we love, and hopefully the place we learn that love can overcome even the most painful rejection.

This crucible of love is where we start to ask those big spiritual questions, and ultimately where they end.

I have seen such expressions of love:  A husband gently washing his wife's face with a cool washcloth, cupping the back of her bald head in his hand to get to the nape of her neck, because she is too weak to lift it from the pillow. A daughter spooning pudding into the mouth of her mother, a woman who has not recognized her for years.

A wife arranging the pillow under the head of her husband's no-longer-breathing body as she helps the undertaker lift him onto the waiting stretcher.

We don't learn the meaning of our lives by discussing it.  It's not to be found in books or lecture halls or even churches or synagogues or mosques.  It's discovered through these actions of love.

If God is love, and we believe that to be true, then we learn about God when we learn about love. The first, and usually the last, classroom of love is the family.

Sometimes that love is not only imperfect, it seems to be missing entirely.  Monstrous things can happen in families.  Too often, more often than I want to believe possible, patients tell me what it feels like when the person you love beats you or rapes you.  They tell me what it feels like to know that you are utterly unwanted by your parents.  They tell me what it feels like to be the target of someone's rage.   They tell me what it feels like to know that you abandoned your children, or that your drinking destroyed your family, or that you failed to care for those who needed you.

Even in these cases, I am amazed at the strength of the human soul.  People who did not know love in their families know that they should have been loved.  They somehow know what was missing, and what they deserved as children and adults.

When the love is imperfect, or a family is destructive, something else can be learned:  forgiveness.  The spiritual work of being human is learning how to love and how to forgive.

We don’t have to use words of theology to talk about God; people who are close to death almost never do. We should learn from those who are dying that the best way to teach our children about God is by loving each other wholly and forgiving each other fully - just as each of us longs to be loved and forgiven by our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kerry Egan.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Death • My Faith

soundoff (4,493 Responses)
  1. elizabeth

    hogwash, ths is my first post and it is to you.

    Is the truth in your name?
    Would I be foolish to believe what you have to say?

    January 29, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • howash!

      No, you'd be very smart of you to take note of what I have to say!

      January 29, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • howash!

      it would be...

      January 29, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  2. WyoWind

    A very powerful and well-written commentary on living, dying and the impact of family.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  3. loathstheright

    Most said is "Oh s**t".

    January 29, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  4. howash!

    Do people really want some religious fraudster holding their hand as thy are dying? Obviously not!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  5. Biff

    So... Kerry Egan gets all butt-hurt by her professor and now can use CNN to turn the tables. Awesome.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  6. Reality

    Bring on the morphine drip!!!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  7. Joe

    What a total pompous idiot that professor was. I'm so glad this gracious and loving young woman grew far beyond the limits of his mean, pinched intellect.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • howash!

      Her intellect is a little pinched. Who invited her?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • Jon

      I actually rooted for the professor in this story.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  8. Ruth

    Such an insightful look a what we will all go through...one day. Everybody's journey through life good or bad ~ it's not hard to see that really.... after all it's all about the love. We all deserve to love and be loved. It's a shame that not all people are given or allowed this necessity of life. Where there is life... there should always be love. Unconditionally.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  9. Ahmad Hussain

    Religion at its best, very beutifully and objectively put in words.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Jerry

      Ahmed, you don't seem to see that Kerry's story was not religion at all. How her professor behaved, that was religion.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  10. RichardSRussell

    When I die, I want to go peacefully and quietly in my sleep, the way my grandfather did — not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  11. Dhru

    I could not stop myself from.sobbing after reading this article. I was truly touched. Thank you so much for sharing. I will definitely pass this article to family and friends.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  12. Drew

    Good piece. Good observations. I hate when closed minded people in authority try to make others feel small because they have a differing opinion. Bravo to you for continuing on your path in spite of someone's lack of understanding at an significant point in your life.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  13. Garret

    Kerry Egan almost understands what is going on. People are not sinners, they want to love and be loved by other people. In the end they know that the religiously claimed 'love of a god' is just fantasy. This article shows it. Forget about the gods, it is people that counts.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  14. Bill Mosby

    I learned something about forgiveness: it can't be given when the behavior to be forgiven is still going on. And I learned that that behavior sometimes extends right up to the end of the perpetrator's life. I'm not at all sure what I will be thinking about my family when the time comes.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  15. Lyssi

    Thank you for this article. It brought tears to my eyes. I wish there were more of these moving articles written. No more politics! Please feature human kind at its best.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  16. Eric

    Loved this essay/article. The professor that took your story, and used it in class should truly be ashamed of himself for being so ignorant. How can anyone calling themselves a professor step out of bounds to insult a student (albeit one who has a background in theology) about what he/she does in their line of work. You sound like a wonderful person (if you were religious or not)...the professor you had obviously thought more of himself than he did of anyone else.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  17. gusboy

    CAN ANYONE PROVE THAT COLORS EXIST TO A BLIND PERSON????? GOD CAN ONLY BE PRRCIEVED BY FAITH!

    January 29, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Michael

      Wow that would be an interesting point if I were 12 years old and mentally handicapped.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Jerry

      A ridiculuos answer even in CAPITALS.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Gus, put down the vodka.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  18. John Gabriel

    Your "God" is but a figment of your imagination.

    I find god and religion obnoxious. Please keep it within the confines of your heads. The stench of it is worse than a sewer.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • gusboy

      YES RIGHT YOU FIND IT OBNOXIOUS BECAUSE YOU KNOW HE EXISTS. BUT SOME DAY U WILL..WILL. WILL MEET HIM IN SALVATION OR IN JUDGEMENT BUT PUT IT DOWN STRAIGHT.... YOU WILL MEET HIM.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Jason

      Speaking of obnoxious statements, your comment is a splendid example of one.

      Just as there are dumb atheists, so there are smart people of faith. When you learn to stop sounding like a demeaning, self-righteous kook, we'll be ready for a meaningful conversation.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:17 am |
    • huh?

      You hate it so much, you actively seek out articles on public news sites about it to rant and rave as if you genuinely think people give a squat about your opinion. If you hate religion – that's cool. Here's a tip though – to keep it from annoying you any further why not just stop reading and trolling on articles about it all together? For you to hatefully comment on religious articles about how much you HATE religion is a lot like someone complaining of a headache while bashing their forehead with a mallet.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:19 am |
    • Lauri

      If you find "God and religion" obnoxious then why are you reading an article in the faith section?

      January 29, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  19. JustPlainJoe

    People die as they lived. Let decent people live good lives without the self-righteous intruding their cultural values. Equally, let their final moments be with their own peace and not the anxiety introduced by another.

    Well meaning article but limited by the effect that these are self-selecting people she sees. There as many "types" of death as there are people.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:04 am |
  20. Dawn R. Hadley

    Have we ALL missed the gist of this article? What is all this fighting about: I'm right and you're wrong. There IS no right or wrong – a person's beliefs are individual and based on feelings – everyone has different feelings based on their reaction to what they have experienced in life. The final message here is that people seek to return to love by reaching out to those who loved them or those who they wished loved them and that they reach out in death to either ask for forgiveness or bestow forgiveness for wrongs done to them. I will NOT have hatred preached to me from ANY sector – be it religious or non-religious. Everyone has the freedom of personal choice and if that choice is to be affiliated with a religion or belief, be it Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan, Christian, Athiest, I PERSONALLY don't care as long as they wish me good will / love. The minute ANYONE espouses HATE to me, I reject their believe and will walk away. The bottom line of this article is that people in death reach out in LOVE. Let us remember that and be more respectful – let us reach out to each other with AT THE LEAST tolerance that each person will have different views and INSTEAD of trying to degrade someone just because they refuse to adhere to your beliefs – LISTEN to them and allow that you may feel differently but they have a RIGHT to believe or not believe as they will. Thank you. I wish peace and understanding for all the human race.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • colliemom

      Dawn – Beautifully said. I think we each have a responsibility to think through and identify our own beliefs (which includes reading and learning about other belief systems/religions). People can reach different decisions without anyone being wrong. Preaching for or against religion is just plain bullying; I sometimes think the people who are the least secure in their beliefs are the most pushy about forcing thier ideas on others. It's interesting to discuss and learn about other religions/beliefs, but that doesn't mean one believer (or nonbeliever) needs to brow beat others to prove they are right. The atheists are just as repugnant as the religious with these attacks on others. Make your own decision, but treat others kindly.

      January 29, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Dawn R. Hadley

      Thank you colliemom. I am VERY anti bullying and have read many close minded, hurtful posts made to people about the comments they have made on the article. It is so SAD to me that we as human beings have to bully, belittle and find fault with other people's feelings and beliefs. I think 2 different people could each read the bible, koran or torah or any other religious based guidebook and depending on what they have experienced in life come to 2 absolutely different opinions on whether God exists or not. And THAT is personal and up to them – NOT for me to judge. My mother-in-law has to harangue everyone at every family gathering how she is SO intelligent/open-minded and she has read the Bible from cover to cover and there is NO GOD. That is her belief and she is welcome to it – however she doesn't have the right to imply that anyone who thinks differently is an idiot. Einstein believed in God and I am SURE she is not more intelligent than him. My brother-in-law recently died a VERY lonely death – suicide by pills. What a SHAME that he died alone with no one to hear his pain. I am pleased that the author of this article is willing to be with people at their final moments and acknowledge their feelings and right to those feelings when they seem to need it the most. That she does so with an open mind, without imposing her own feelings on these people is a testament to her compassion and empathy. I applaud her, if she interprets that as proof of God – that is her right no matter whether I believe or not. I will not have the religious right tell me Gay people are an abomination no more than I will have an Athiest tell me I am deluded or unintelligent. In my book – a bully is a bully is a bully and I will NEVER be won over to ANY side of an argument by being bullied. I have purposely not stated whether I believe or do not believe because I would NEVER ram that down anyone's throat – what I believe is between me and my God / or myself and NO ONE else. Thank you for speaking against bullying in ANY form and for seeing the hateful comments for exactly what they are.

      January 29, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.